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Late bilinguals enjoy brain advantage


Claudia Civinini writes

We all know that adults, unlike those lucky babies of the opposite page, have a hard time learning a new language. But precisely because of this, late bilinguals enjoy even more cognitive benefits than early bilinguals, a new study has found.

It is already known that people who become bilingual as children are quicker at switching from one task to another than monolinguals. But those who become bilingual as adults are even quicker, the research has revealed.

The author of the study, Dr Anne-Marie Connolly, director of studies at Everest Language School in Dublin, said: ‘There is ample evidence to suggest that within the bilingual mind the two languages are not separate. The early exposure to two languages facilitates the bilingual ability to keep both languages separate’. However, in the case of late bilinguals, the L2 acts as ‘in a parasitic capacity’ to the L1, and switching from one to the other, a task operated by the executive control network, requires more effort. But this effort ‘trains’ the brain and makes it able to switch tasks more quickly.

‘The extra effort required on the part of the cognitive system involved translates into an extra gain’, said Dr Connolly.

The study used a computer-based task that required participants to switch between two tasks, each requiring their own set of rules. The Switch Cost, the time taken to disengage from one set of rules and engage with the other set, was lower for late bilinguals.

Dr Connolly said that this bilingual advantage had been observed when bilinguals have a reasonably high level of proficiency in their L2, and they use it daily or almost daily.

Pic courtesy: Claire Mono